Toxic Masculinity and Patriarchy in Barn Burning (W. Faulkner)

a barn (burning)

As we were discussing “Barn Burning” and pointing out certain paragraphs and parts, I found myself rereading in class and thinking about points I had not previously thought of. This semester, I’m taking a class called Women in History; we’re currently discussing how the traditional values held of masculinity and femininity are harming to the development of girls and boys. Throughout “Barn Burning”, the reader is exposed to multiple instances of toxic masculinity and what we call, the cycle of fear and control. In Faulkner’s short story, the different aspects of masculinity are more prevalent than femininity, perhaps because the story is male-centered and male-identified.

Particularly, in several scenes where Sarty is conflicted between his morals and what his father describes as “blood” and “being a man” (110), his second-guessing is taken advantage of by Abner. Because Abner is desperately hungry for power, something he can not obtain in the social world because of his socioeconomic status, he takes what he can get and overpowers Sarty’s mind. That being said, because Sarty admires Abner as the dominant male figure in his life, he allows the overtaking to happen, until of course, the end of the story. Abner fears other men having power over him, and when he can’t control that, he looks for other ways to have power, that being his own family. This weaves into part of the reason why Abner has such a large disrespect to men of higher status than him; he views higher status men as a threat and, thus, does his best to show that their power and status in social situations, does not affect him and his manhood.

The idea of toxic masculinity is particularly strong when Sarty’s father tells him to “be a man” (110) and describes the idea that family ties are stronger than anything else. The fear of not living up to societal expectations of manhood and masculinity are one of the most terrifying things for Sarty which is why he often finds himself conflicted with his true feelings and how Abner views him. At least at the beginning of the story, to respect himself, he needs to gain the respect of his father, therefore not snitching on his father when he’s asked to testify and giving him the answer his father is expecting when asked if he was going to snitch in the first place.

The oppression of women in “Barn Burning” is not as obvious as the toxic masculinity woven throughout the story. However, it is still very much there. Readers must be aware of the timing when Faulkner wrote this story and what was considered the normal way to treat women back then. Women are seen as background characters and many don’t even get a name (until his mother at the very end). The very male-centeredness of the story ignores women and perpetuates the subject/object dichotomy ideal. Abner’s treatment of women further digs into this idea that women are objects for the use of men gaining power over other men. Abner uses women to show power to his employers and that he has control over his family. This is most likely the reason why he views family and blood to such a high standard.

That being said, “Barn Burning” has had my mind churning since we discussed it in class. The many layers that this story contains takes a lot more than just un-peeling this single layer. Overall, I thought that the story was a lot more than what it seemed on the surface. It displayed this racist, southern view, that we’re not exposed to almost ever, unless in history textbooks and lessons. However, that’s a whole other world to dive into later.

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